Meteorologists predicted a spring-like 18 degrees and sunshine in Berlin on April 16, 1945. What they did not forecast was an artillery storm that descended on the western side of the Oder River at 3 a.m. sharp from more than 40,000 guns: the Red Army’s starting shot for the final offensive of World War II on European soil. The goal was the conquest of the “den of the fascist beast” – Berlin. 17 days later, on May 2, 1945, the last defenders of the Reich capital surrendered. But the blood toll was exorbitant, on both sides. While an estimated 100,000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives on the German side, the Soviet army had to mourn over 80,000 casualties. And the dead had to be buried appropriately.
Already a few days after the German surrender, the Soviet side searched for suitable locations and drew plans. In addition to various smaller cemeteries, three monumental memorials were built in the second half of the 1940s, where thousands of Red Army soldiers were buried: in the centrally located Tiergarten, in Treptower Park and in Schönholzer Heide in the north of Berlin. In this article we would like to introduce you to the Berlin Soviet War Memorials, but first we will explain why they are still standing in Berlin today.
The Two-Plus-Four Contract and the Berlin Soviet War Memorials
In the Two-Plus-Four Treaty (1990), which legally established the unification of the FRG and the GDR into one Germany, there is a passage in paragraph 2 that was extremely important to the Soviets leaving the GDR:
The monuments erected on German soil, dedicated to the victims of war and tyranny, are respected and protected under German laws. The same applies to the war graves, they are preserved and maintained.
In the war graves agreement between Germany and Russia, signed two years later, this commitment, among other agreements, was emphasized once again. Therefore, the Federal Republic of Germany is obliged to ensure and finance the maintenance, preservation and possible renovations also in the future.
The Soviet War Memorial at Tiergarten
In the early summer of 1945, construction work began on the cemetery in Tiergarten. The site is situated in the very heart of Berlin, only a few meters away from the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building. At this place, had the Nazis been able to realize their plans for the new Reich capital “Germania”, the brute north-south axis would have run. The Red Army mourns and honors its fallen at the very place where monstrous parades of the victorious Wehrmacht should have taken place. The irony of history rarely manifests itself more symbolically.
The memorial was completed in time for November 7, 1945, the anniversary of the October Revolution, and was ceremoniously opened a few days later with a military parade attended by French, British and US troop contingents. In the center of the memorial, enthroned on a massive pedestal, is an eight-meter tall Red Army soldier designed by sculptors Lev Kerbel and Vladimir Zigal. The soldier’s shouldered carbine indicates the end of the fighting, while his left hand rests protectively over his fallen comrade. The Cyrillic inscription on the pedestal reads.
“Eternal glory to the heroes who fell for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union in the fight against the fascist German invaders. 1941–1945”.
The names of fallen soldiers are immortalized in the concave colonnades adjoining the statue of the Red Army soldier on both sides. In front of the actual memorial, symmetrically arranged, are two heavy artillery pieces and two T34/76 tanks each. According to official Soviet legend, the two armored vehicles were the first to cross the Berlin city border.
Behind the colonnades you can find information about the history and the historical background in the former buildings of the guards. Behind the colonnades there is an extensive lawn, under which more than 2000 Red Army soldiers found their last resting place. However, since only a few were known by name, gravestones were not erected.
The memorial during the Cold War
What was not considered in the selection of the location in 1945 or was hardly foreseeable in detail: the memorial was located in the British sector after Berlin was divided into the four occupation zones. After the building of the Wall the memorial became a Soviet enclave on West Berlin soil. Particularly disconcerting, especially for Western tourists, was the presence of Red Army Soldiers who guarded the memorial around the clock. For West German and West Berlin opponents and enemies of the Soviet Union, the memorial was naturally a thorn in the side. However, its location and preservation was enshrined in the city’s four-power status.
The attack by a neo-Nazi, who shot and seriously injured one of the guards in November 1970, led to increased security measures. The area was widely shielded with a metal fence and additionally the gravesite was guarded by British military. Until 1990, the day of the German surrender or the victory in the “Great Patriotic War” was celebrated annually with great military ceremony. On December 22, 1990, the last Soviet guard of honor in the Tiergarten ended and the state of Berlin took over responsibility. Today the memorial in the Tiergarten is open around the clock.
The Berlin Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park
The immense monumentality, the strict axial symmetry and the colossal, yet richly detailed soldier statues of the memorial in Treptower Park still impress first-time visitors today. The complex extends over 90,000 m² and is by far the largest military memorial in Germany. At the same time, about 7000 fallen Red Army soldiers were buried here.
History of the creation of the memorial at Treptower Park
In contrast to its counterpart in the Tiergarten, which was built immediately after the end of the war, the Soviets took more time for the construction in Treptower Park – which was probably necessary due to the planned size. In response to the Soviet military administration’s call for tenders, over 40 designs were submitted by various artists and architects. Finally, the concept of a four-member collective consisting of the architect Yakov Belopolsky, the painter Alexander Gorpenko, the sculptor Yevgeny Vuchetich and the engineer Sarra Valerius was selected.
Construction work in Treptower Park began in June 1946. To keep the motivation of the more than 1,200 construction workers high in the tight schedule, they and their families were provided with special food rations. The building materials, especially granite, limestone and marble, were brought in from villas destroyed during the war, government buildings and, in some cases, from stone depots set up by the Nazis for their planned ostentatious buildings after the end of the war. The heavy stone slabs were transported directly to the place where they were to be used by a narrow-gauge railroad that had been built on the construction site.
Structure and design of the site
The memorial has two entrances: from the northern side via “Puschkinallee” and from the southern side via the street “Am Treptower Park”. On both sides a triumphal arch forms the entrance portal, on whose head side in Russian and German the “Eternal Glory of the Heroes” is commemorated. The two entrance axes meet at the monument to “Mother Homeland,” a mother mourning for her fallen son. Directly in front of the sculpture begins the wide main axis, about 100 meters long, which leads slightly uphill into the memorial, flanked on both sides by weeping birches.
Two strictly structured flag pylons made of red granite then form the gateway to the grove of honor in Treptower Park, the center of the overall complex. Beneath the granite flags, two bronze soldiers pause in a kneeling posture. Their heads bowed in deep mourning, they hold their steel helmet in their left hand and the submachine gun placed on the buttstock in their right hand. The statues, a young and an elderly Red Army soldier, representing the intergenerational struggle against fascism, weigh about 40 tons each.
From the elevated terrace, the visitor now has a view of five square grave fields arranged in a row, 16 sarcophagi placed in rows of 8 to the left and right of the grave fields. On the sarcophagi are sculptural representations of the various phases of the Great Patriotic War, ranging from the German attack to the partisan war to victory and mourning for the sons of the Soviet Union. On the sides of each are immortalized quotations of Stalin in gold lettering, manifesting the strong spirit of struggle and resistance of the Soviet people:
The heroic defenders of Moscow and Tula, of Odessa and Sevastopol, of Leningrad and Stalingrad gave examples of boundless bravery, iron discipline, steadfastness and the art of winning. After these heroes our whole Red Army is guided.Inscription on sarcophagus no. 5; on the northern side the quotations are in Russian, while the German translations are on the sarcophagi on the southern side
The monument to the Soviet soldier is enthroned at the southeastern end of the complex in Treptower Park: 30 meters high, the bronze liberation warrior in Treptower Park rises into the Berlin sky. It represents the extremely imposing culmination of the entire ensemble, to which everything ultimately boils down in perfect architectural dramaturgy. The actual monument rests on an almost 10 meter high mound of earth, the Kurgan. It takes its name from conical burial mounds that have been built since the Neolithic period, especially in the Slavic-speaking region. Thus, the Kurgan in Treptow Park is part of a long historical tradition, which was certainly intended by the builders.
In the hill itself the bones of 200 Red Army soldiers are buried. Above a mausoleum clad in white limestone, the liberation warrior rises. In his right hand he holds the sword lowered to the ground, while in his left he holds a little girl who nestles close to him. A broken swastika protrudes from under his soldier boots. The bronze sculpture is the western finale of a “Soviet monument trinity”: in Magnitogorsk, located on the Urals, the steel was forged, in Stalingrad, today’s Volgograd, the “Mother Homeland” raises her sword against the invaders, and in Berlin the warrior lowers his sword as the battles ended victoriously.
The casting of the 70-ton sculpture for Treptower Park was so complex that no German casting house could be found in the post-war period that could have taken on the job. Therefore, the preliminary model was cut into several horizontal slices, transported by train to Leningrad and cast there in the appropriate individual parts. In mid-April 1949, the bronze parts returned to Berlin and were assembled – like a gigantic Lego set. This was just in time to meet the planned opening date: on May 8, 1949, the fourth anniversary of the German surrender, the ceremonial opening took place in the presence of Soviet generals and (East) German dignitaries.
Symbol of victory over fascism and turn of the times
In the following decades, countless manifestations of the “unbreakable” friendship between the GDR and the Soviet Union took place on the grounds in Treptower Park. Every year, May 9 was jointly celebrated as the day of victory over Hitler’s fascism. The last official German-Russian ceremony at government level was particularly symbolic: on August 31, 1994, Russian and German soldiers honored their fallen comrades together, and heads of state Boris Yeltsin and Helmut Kohl gave unctuous speeches.
This ceremony marked the end of the Soviet military presence on German soil after almost 50 years, and the last contingents of Red Army troops departed for the East. Today, the Soviet Memorial in Treptow Park is open all around the clock.
The Soviet War Memorial at Schönholzer Heide
The third memorial, which we visit, is also in the chronology the third one: It was opened after two years of construction in November 1949. Its architectural structure is similar to its counterpart in Treptower Park, but it is only a third of the size. Over 13,000 Russians were buried in the nearly 30,000 square meters of space. The majority of the victims died in the final battles for Berlin in April 1945. During the war, Schönholzer Heide was home to a camp for Soviet prisoners of war and forced laborers, where the blood toll, as in virtually all German camps, was enormous.
The Soviet victims of the brutal camp regime were reburied after the end of the war and also received their final resting place within the walls of the memorial. Schönholzer Heide is thus the only Soviet memorial in Berlin that pays tribute to both the direct war dead and those who perished in captivity. In view of Stalin’s distrust of Red Army soldiers who had fallen alive into the hands of the enemy, this joint commemoration is all the more unusual. For the “Generalissimo”, captured Red Army soldiers were either cowards or – even worse – traitors to the Red Army.
Stalinist monumental architecture
The visitor approaches the complex from the south via an avenue lined with magnificent linden trees. The avenue is flanked by two honorary pillars on which a stylized eternal flame blazes. Behind a metal fence, the large grove of honor opens up, preceded by an imposing entrance portal made of red granite. Large relief sculptures bear witness to war, misery, death and eventual victory. Various insignia attached to the portal testify to the contribution and sacrifice of the various branches of the Red Army.
If you follow the strictly axially designed complex, for which the architects K.A. Soloviev, M.D. Belaventsev, V.D. Korolyov and the sculptor I. G. Perschudtschew were responsible, you approach the total of 16 burial chambers, in which almost 1200 soldiers are buried. Directly on the outer walls of the area one discovers a further multiplicity of grave fields, which are marked with name plates. In total, however, more than 75% of those buried here are unknown by name.
The dramatic highlight of the complex is a gigantic obelisk, over 33m high, in whose foundation higher-ranking officers are buried, each of whom is honored with an individual epitaph. In front of the obelisk, “Mother Homeland” mourns her fallen son, who lies in front of her.
On the northern perimeter wall, directly behind the obelisk, a massive Soviet star and a plaque commemorate the camp victims.
The site is in excellent overall condition, having been renovated and refurbished from 2010 to 2013 at a cost of over 10 million euros. In contrast to the much better-known memorials in Tiergarten and Treptower Park, only a few visitors find their way to Schönholzer Heide. This means that you can always find a quiet spot here and indulge in contemplation about war, peace and transience. However, one should keep an eye on the opening hours (April–September 7am–1pm, October–March 8am–4pm).
This book is not about the Berlin Soviet War Memordials, but covers Soviet and Russian War memorials in Russsia and their cultural history.
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